I often wonder how General Billy Mitchell must have felt as he relentlessly advocated for the use of strategic airpower while surrounded by leadership who did not understand his vision. He saw a technology that was so revolutionary, such a game changer, that it consumed his every thought of how he could employ it to save his nation. I also wonder what must have been going through his mind during the last year of World War I as French aircraft provided top-cover above American soldiers. Those airplanes were French-built because America’s leadership at the time failed to make the necessary investments in the rapidly emerging technology of armed aircraft. What is clear is that Mitchell’s level of frustration reached an apex at this moment because the loss of life was preventable; that it resulted from a lack of military leadership’s “control and effectiveness.” Mitchell spent the interwar years fighting to sensibly and effectively align an emerging civilian technology with military requirements. Relentlessly, even to the point of court-martial, he stood up against old-guard leadership that was complacent due in part to their negligence in understanding how emerging technology would change the course of warfare forever. Mitchell was not held in high esteem amongst the top brass; he left the military as a convicted man for his beliefs. Fortunately, his ideas were eventually vindicated as his theories formed much of the foundation for our nation’s airpower success in World War II and paved the way for America’s superpower status. His ideas were just ahead of his time.
It is frustrating to note the parallels today between Mitchell’s fight for strategic airpower and our military’s current lack of understanding as it relates to harnessing social media to achieve strategic military objectives. In 1925, Billy Mitchell said, “Those interested in the future of the country, not only from a national defense standpoint but from a civil, commercial and economic one as well, should study this matter carefully, because air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world’s development.” If you replace the words “air power” with “social media” today, you could make that exact statement at any professional conference or in any corporate board room and earn high respect. More important than respect is that the person who makes that statement is right. Social media in particular and social collaboration in general have fundamentally changed the world. Over one billion people use Facebook. Twitter users post 140 million tweets daily. YouTube users upload 72 hours of video every minute. Combined, these three powerhouse forces of social media directly contributed to the Arab Spring and regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Social media also contributed to the creation of popular uprisings in Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain, highlighting that the most effective weapon isn’t always kinetic. Dictators, autocratic governments, and religious police live in fear of the power that is social media. Nations like China and Iran have banned sites like Facebook and Twitter because of the threat these web sites pose to information control. Even some midlevel military leaders set limits on social media’s use by periodically blocking sites like YouTube and Facebook on government networks. It begs the question: why does social media scare these powerful, established forces? Why are we as a military not more fully invested in embracing the power of these tools? Social media and digital collaboration are two of the 21st Century’s most revolutionary tools that our armed forces must invest in and exploit in order to disrupt our enemies, dominate the informational battle space and spark true innovative solutions to counter a challenging global security environment. In an austere fiscal environment, social media and digital collaboration are programs that truly do more with less and should be embraced.
The first step to solve any problem is to define the current state of the issue. To be blunt, the current social media strategy in the military is best defined by its lack of a coherent and simple-to-understand strategy. A quick search of the Department of Defense (DoD) social media regulations shows that there are at least 12 different DoD social media policy documents containing numerous rules, policy letters and directives in a disjointed and sometimes inconsistent manner. Each specific service has at least three additional policy regulations detailing their own rules and limitations in arcane language, while computer based training slides litter these unappealing websites. Simplifying or at least streamlining these complex and sometimes conflicting regulations is the first step to adopting the widespread usage of effective social media in the military. The layers of red tape have already smothered an environment that demands collaboration, not stagnation.
In its simplest form, social media exists to quickly and personally convey a message to the masses. While basic communication is as old as time, the concept of personal communication to the masses via portable and pocket-sized devices is unique and quickly evolving. The struggles that our traditional military public affairs teams face in the realm of social media today are similar to the difficulties that mainstream media outlets have encountered trying to rapidly adapt to this new media environment. In the 1980s, mainstream media produced the highly polished nightly news broadcast that was the centerpiece of news and information for most Americans. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly two-thirds of the total nightly news viewers are now over 50 years old. During the past 30 years, viewing habits changed and greatly shifted as the younger generations shunned their parent’s traditional news model. Nightly news broadcasts lost 55% of their market over the past 30 years, while online news from sites like Huffington Post, Breitbart, Politico and Drudge Report continue to gain users. This new generation of media thrives because it doesn’t operate on a controlled news cycle that requires careful preparation and vetting. Young people now demand news at anytime, anywhere. The top online news sites deliver streaming news and dedicate resources to attract and respond to what their viewers want. The DoD can greatly benefit from doing the same.
As an observer, it appears that the Pentagon has mirrored mainstream media in its slow transformation and ability to control the message in a now very fragmented media environment. Viewing traditional military news sources like the Pentagon Channel are about as appealing as watching C-SPAN or the Home Shopping Network to the average member of the millennial generation, who is used to more attention grabbing internet and social media news sources. (Of note, Nielsen does not track Pentagon Channel or C-SPAN viewership to allow an actual comparison of viewing statistics.) Additionally, current defense websites lack the graphical refinements and functionality of their commercial counterparts. It is not only the quality of the programming but also the content of the programming itself that adds significant value to the broadcasts. The news presented on The Pentagon Channel and DoD controlled websites is outdated, somewhat amateur and widely seen as unrefined propaganda with little strategic analysis or debate. The unappealing nature of DoD media makes it a very unlikely source viewers will turn to when news breaks, thereby failing to establish or control the message. The military’s lack of message control results in other media entities framing the military’s story, no matter the accuracy or content.
To be fair, the services have made many attempts to use social media and the web with varying degrees of success. It is important to note that tools like Facebook and Twitter are being employed by public affairs agencies across the DoD. Yet there seems to be very little coordination and high-level focus on how to maximize the value and measure success across the DoD enterprise. Very few DoD sites understand how to interpret current trends and use this information to not only attract an audience, but keep them engaged. A very illustrative example of this lack of know-how can be seen in the social media operations of Air Mobility Command (AMC). AMC is one of the Air Force's largest Major Commands (MAJCOMs) comprising the largest mobility fleet of aircraft in the world. Worldwide missions require an AMC (including Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard) aircraft departure every 90 seconds, every day! AMC was one of the first MAJCOMs with boots on the ground in Haiti. Their forces were also among the first to respond to the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan, as well as the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2004 that struck Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. AMC and its supporting agencies directly helped millions of people with its immense air cargo and air refueling capacity and unrivaled humanitarian relief expertise . Unfortunately, very few people see these amazing successes because their social media postings fail to capture the audience’s attention enough to go viral. AMC currently has just over 640 “likes” on their Facebook page. Including the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves, there are over 134,000 airmen who work for AMC. The total amount of fans on AMC’s Facebook pages represents an engagement rate of just over .4% of AMC’s own work force. By comparison, a commercial company like Coca-Cola’s Facebook fan page has 51,000,000 fans on Facebook.
Each fan represents a real person who sees messages posted by the page that they “like” every single time they log into Facebook. A “like” represents the social media pathway to sharing a potentially strategic message on the Facebook user’s newsfeed. Unfortunately, AMC’s online presence today is minuscule. Despite doing very worthwhile and respected work for our nation, AMC’s current Facebook audience represents less than .00125% than that of a soda company. Even worse, until September of 2012, AMC's Facebook was oddly titled "Mobility Airmen". This meant that any user who searched for AMC’s page on Facebook would not be directed to an official page but instead directed to pages owned by civilian users that were not even associated with the command. AMC then attempted to rectify this problem by creating an additional page called "Air Mobility Command (Official)" but their Facebook fan base once again started from zero. From a social media and search engine perspective, AMC’s inconsistent product branding is confusing and just doesn’t make sense. Their strategy results in very low Facebook exposure rates and makes it seem that those in charge of the social media operations do not fully understand the strategic potential of a well organized and professional Facebook presence. AMC’s inability to effectively distribute its page to the masses is evident by the page’s lack of engagement by Facebook users and no noted viral content even after playing a critical national role in providing relief from hurricane Sandy in the Northeast United States. AMC is not an isolated case.
Our military consistently makes these types of social media and online faux pas that limit its social exposure. The lack of effective engagement occurs across social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and even the more established web. If you type the search term “Afghanistan” into the Google search engine, you must click through almost six pages of results until you finally come across an official NATO or DoD site discussing Afghan strategy. With a lack of a cohesive social media and web strategy, it is easy to see why many of our greatest successes, humanitarian efforts and national strategy objectives aren't being effectively shared with the world. Think of the potential if every humanitarian aid delivery or school being built in Afghanistan went viral across the web. If military commands like AMC could capture just 1% of Facebook’s one billion users, they could bypass mainstream media and share their message to a much larger audience. The United States is spending significant national treasure helping others abroad. We gain little tangible goodwill in return partially because of our failure to effectively broadcast our story to the world in this social media age.
As our military struggles to convey an effective message through social media, a more hostile story is still being told on our behalf and without our consent. From Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan and even to Inspire magazine by AlQaeda, other entities--fueled by social media—have successfully painted our military in a negative light and forced senior leadership to defend our operations to a hostile media in a very reactionary way. A draft report on our shortcomings by the Joint Staff echoes this assessment stating, “While the military was slow to adapt to these developments [negative press events], the enemy was not, developing considerable skill in using these new means of dissemination to their own ends." This slow reaction to comprehending the effects of social media was not limited to just Afghanistan and Iraq. An even more ominous failure of our ability to control the message in this modern era became apparent during the Libya campaign of 2011. With the Twitter handle @FMCNL, a shadowy former Netherlands military officer tweeted nearly every takeoff and landing of the Libyan bombing campaign with frightening precision just by monitoring air traffic control along with data mining open source records and monitoring chat rooms. Accurate tail numbers, routings, home bases for fighters and intercepted propaganda messages by C-130 Commando Solo aircraft are still available on the web for all to hear. It is downright scary to think of our nation's vulnerabilities from just one overzealous aviation fan. US lives could be at dire risk in future conflicts if we ever engage enemies more capable than Libya. Our failure to understand information flow in this social media era could be the reason for unnecessary casualties in future conflicts.
It is true to say that social networking presents many new challenges but it also presents innumerable potential opportunities. It's an understatement to say that social networking has fundamentally changed our society from the way it was just twenty years ago. America's extreme addiction to texting, status updates and collaborative thought are only matched in intensity by its former addiction to smoking in the 1950s. Most members of the millennial generation can't make it through a single meal without checking-in or texting someone. Many become visibly edgy without metered doses of touching their mobile devices. Ideas and problem solving pass effortlessly between people through digital devices during the most random times and locations. Digital collaborative thought, a staple of commercial tech businesses, has yet to take hold in our military. And that is something that is intensely frustrating to the millennial generation of officers and enlisted.
Take Mark Zuckerberg for example--the 28 year-old, billionaire founder of Facebook. In less than the length of a Captain's career, Mr. Zuckerberg has done more to influence regime change in more nations than most senior elected and military leaders since the Cold War ended. Whether positive or negative, it is fair to say that his idea was the tool that contributed to regime change in more nations than our military's two major conflicts of this past decade. Utilizing his Facebook product as a medium, repressed Middle East citizens established rallies and rapidly disseminated intelligence in a decentralized manner. His product overwhelmed powerful intelligence apparatuses and crippled even more repressive regimes. Yet with all of the successes that Facebook has enjoyed, one has to wonder why those types of innovations rarely come out of a similarly aged and equally talented officer and enlisted corps.
The old adage of learning to be tactical first, then operational then strategic over a long military career would have most certainly delayed Zuckerberg's ingenious strategic vision had he been a Company Grade Officer (CGO) in the military. A revolutionary concept like Facebook might have never become reality had he chosen to go to West Point or the Air Force Academy instead of Harvard. If Mr. Zuckerberg was Lieutenant (or ensign) Zuckerberg, his revolutionary ideas most likely would have never percolated up to the level where they could be heard by someone of a high enough rank to champion them. In advice often repeated to young innovative troops, he would have been told by mid-level leadership to focus on his primary duties now and wait his turn to think strategically. Even if he staffed his Facebook idea perfectly up his chain of command, his concept would most likely have been snuffed out by suffocating bureaucracy, regulatory hurdle, or at the very least, slowed down to a point where it was most likely was outmoded or made irrelevant by the time his vision was implemented. The opportunities for a real-life Lt Zuckerberg coming forward with a game changing idea within the current military bureaucracy are limited.
Yet there is still hope for positive change. A warning article like this is pointless without proposing positive steps to solve these troubling issues. When implemented appropriately, social media and collaborative thinking can enhance strategy, which in turn will save lives and resources and boost our image in the court of public opinion. With burgeoning budget woes and no significant economic recovery in sight, now is the time to adopt a comprehensive and consistent social media strategy for our armed forces. Below are 4 critical ways to begin to reverse the lack of effective social media in the military:
1.) Define a social media strategy, simplify DoD guidance and train for success.
The military can no longer look at social media as just a fun toy for tweens and teens. It has to be seen as a critical strategic and operational tool (or weapon) that can literally alter the world's perspective of our nation, influencing our ability to successfully accomplish the mission. The myriad of social media regulations must be simplified into a one-page, common sense policy that every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine can understand. A clear, concise strategy for employing social media must be formulated and conveyed. Service members of every level need to be educated about its benefits, its uses, and its potential pitfalls. Public Affairs staffs must shift their attention away from traditional media to producing high-quality digital content in collaboration with our nation’s cyber forces. Cyber leadership must also set clear, concise and reasonable security restrictions so that Public Affairs staffs can operate with as few content restrictions as possible while still protecting our military networks. Those same Public Affairs staffs must also recruit members who have a passion for new media so that their social media and web content emulates the content and style of popular new media outlets. Troops of all ranks need to be trained and then empowered to tell their story in blogs and on Facebook and Twitter. As with physical weapons, soldiers must be taught that with great power of social media comes even greater responsibility. Every basic trainee must be educated on the strategic value of social media. They must learn how to properly engage the masses when called upon to do so and share military successes that will positively impact mission accomplishment and our nation’s perception at home and abroad. Public Affairs staffs must offer a consistent and timely approval policy to scrub compromising information so that all service members can post information without the fear of retribution. Once this strategy is implemented, every service member will possess the basic tools necessary to be a spokesperson and ambassador for our nation, exponentially increasing our nation’s voice in order to effectively engage with social media.
2.) Actively cultivate social media expertise from the millennial generation.
Back in 2001, author Marc Prensky coined the terms “Digital Immigrants” and “Digital Natives” in a research article published in the journal “On The Horizon.” In his research, he noted the vast differences in behavior and thought between those who were raised in a technology rich environment versus those who were older and incorporated the use of technology as adults. He hypothesized that the intense use of technology might actually mean that digital a native’s thought processes and thinking patterns were different. In military terms, a digital native is an officer or enlisted aged 35 or below. If Prensky’s research is correct, there exists a very tangible generational difference in how technology is used to build trust and relationships across the generational gap. Therefore, those selected to build social media doctrine for the military should be heavily stacked with digital natives who best understand the nuances of the technology. These digital natives with strategic talents must be developed at a young age. Standard BDE and IDE programs must encourage more think tank-like structures. Developmental education for younger officers and enlisted needs to include many more internships and professional interactions with forward thinking companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. Senior leaders should also not be afraid to surround themselves with cells of mid-level and younger troops who demonstrate technical skills, operational expertise and critical thinking ability. Using these skills, they can best translate leadership’s message onto social media outlets. Because of the unique nature of social media, this cell should have the ability to meet unencumbered with leadership so that messages can be conveyed rapidly and effectively, bypassing layers of bureaucracy. Alternatively, DoD leadership could put a digital native civilian in charge of a team and surround that person with senior leadership who could effectively convey leadership’s message to the digital masses.
3.) Collaboration is a force multiplier.
In the tech industry, collaborative thought is extremely common and effective. Companies like Facebook hold "hackerthons" where they spend a 24-hour period dedicated to problem solving. Other companies internally post company deficiencies on forums and offer incentives for employees to post their solutions. This concept could easily be applied to the armed forces. Think if the Air Force Portal or Army Knowledge Now had a “Challenge of the Week” posted prominently on their homepage for feedback. Collaborative thought encourages brainstorming and builds upon other's ideas. Each “Challenge” would present perplexing problems like Low Cost, Low Altitude (LCLA) Airdrop to Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan, hypoxia incidents in the F-22s or IED detection weaknesses. These problems might be solved by a random 21 year-old enlistee with a fresh perspective who is unencumbered by group think or yet to be fully molded by the enterprise. Even better, permit personnel from other agencies like the State Department and CIA to view the weekly challenges so that cross talk at the lower levels of government becomes standard. In an era of shrinking budgets and sequestration, the cost of implementing collaborative thinking is extremely low and the potential payback could be tremendously high. Collaborative problem solving is the way that senior leaders can identify the next Mark Zuckerberg--like problem solvers early in their careers. Once the next generation of brilliant minds is identified, leadership must figure out how to remove bureaucratic barriers in order to rapidly capitalize on their talents.
4.) Most importantly, tell our story effectively.
The military is a tremendous organization with extraordinary men and women who truly embody the greatness of our nation. Now is the time to effectively convey the great things that our troops and supporting personnel are doing every single day despite tremendous personal risk. Southwest Airlines has a program on TV called "On The Fly". The show plainly illustrates the ups and downs of travel while highlighting the personal care and humanity of Southwest employees. USCG Alaska does so in a similar fashion. In that light, think of the potential of the following scenario that could be shared simultaneously on the Web, Twitter, Facebook and traditional media: Follow a captivating story of an M-ATV craftsman building a vehicle destined for Helmand province. Then follow that same vehicle as a C-17 crew and support personnel all team together to deliver the vehicle into theater like clockwork. Finally, follow the selected M-ATV driver as that vehicle accomplishes its mission in Afghanistan, highlighting that fire team's interaction with the locals, their children and the difference that they are making through their physical presence. Include the ups and the downs, just like reality TV, but also emphasize the overarching goal of accomplishing a mission with honor and care, just like the Southwest TV show. If an airline can accomplish a show like "On the Fly" effectively, how much more potential does our military have to change our perception abroad if done with the same level of passion and attention to detail?
This is truly a transformational period in our nation’s military and geopolitics. Similar to how advances in aviation connected continents in a matter of hours, social media now connects cultures at the speed of light. The result--a global ecosystem where a once isolated protester in Tunisia or Egypt can now instantly be heard by tens of millions worldwide. Also, our young officers and enlisted are engaged in the longest sustained period of conflict in our nation’s history, while continuing to provide humanitarian assistance on an unrivaled scale. Effective use of social media and digital collaboration will harness this unparalleled operational expertise to positively affect public opinion, thereby strengthening national security. These tools will better shape our story to the world audience and solve formerly unsolvable challenges. With so many young Americans still in harm’s way, we must explore the use of sensible technologies and resources that will keep them safe. Social media and digital collaboration are the vital tools that represent unique, low-risk opportunities for the military to shape public opinion, inspire new ideas and achieve national objectives.
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About the Author(s)
A couple thoughts:
First, anyone interested in the author's work will likely benefit from a read (or re-read) of Marshal MacLuhan's work "The Medium is the Message". MacLuhan wrote his seminal work as an observer of human nature during the transition from the 3-network black and white TV era to cable and color (ok, cable came later, but anyway).
His salient observation in that work was that the communication medium (means of transmission) impacted the receiver's perception of 'message' as much or more than the sender and the message itself. From this standpoint I have to say that the author's observation of the (anecdotal but likely) under/mis-use of social media by DoD is something that decision makers should pay attention to. While some may counter that this is a little like Thomas Freidman declaring the world is flat (an acute sense of the obvious) I think it's deeper than all that.
The real change, which has happened without much fanfare, is the changing of public discourse from one-way (town crier, newspaper, decree, radio broadcast, television, press conference) to two-way. Better said, it is no longer a monologue to be 'taken in'. Communication has become democratized.
I'm sure others have written about this, but it seems a very important point. One of the commenters here compared strategy to marketing; as a reservist (retired) I spent many years in marketing/sales in many parts of the world. And I can tell you (after doing perception management for DoD) that we could do a much better job. Until the messaging effort exists outside of changes of command (or combatant commander rotations) we will continue to reap minimal harvests.
My 2 cents.
A few thoughts and questions on this article;
1. It may be semantics but I would not request that DoD develop a "Social Media Strategy". While there are different definitions of strategy, depending on the source, many agree that the concept of strategy involves a set or series of decisions made to reach some ultimate goal of an organization. Social media would be just one tool to help achieve the goal of that strategy but not a strategy by itself.
2. While Facebook ended up having a tremendous impact on society, I am not sure if Zuckerberg had an "ingenious strategic vision". My understanding of the development of Facebook is that the phenomenon was largely a surprise even to him and more a result of the right combination of factors external to the site such as the increasing availability of broadband internet and the proliferation of smaller and smaller devices with access to the internet. In many ways this is similar to how Unmanned Aircraft Systems usage has increased exponentially over the last decade. This was largely due to the right combination of better technology, prolonged conflict in an environment permissive enough to allow sustained overflight of aircraft with little or no defensive measures, and the increased need for ISR due to the uncertain nature of this warfare. The question is do we have an environment that would allow for this type of 'accidental' phenomenon to take root or is there no room for experimentation in the military with regard to tactics, equipment, procedures, etc.
3. While I agree with the importance of Social Media and that it needs to be considered as one tool of many to support communications, I see it as more evolutionary than revolutionary as the article describes. Airpower, as the article mentions, was truly Revolutionary. Prior to that, nothing could take advantage of the third dimension on the battlefield. Airpower represented a type of warfare that could not have been imagined before. Social media seems more like a gradual change in the way we communicate but still just represents an incremental increase in the speed and depth in which we can communicate digitally. I would describe the printing press or the internet itself as more revolutionary because both completely changed the nature of communication.
I have some doubts.
It's all very well to speak of "harnessing social media to achieve strategic military objectives", but the author gives absolutely no hint of what strategic military objectives social media are to be harnessed to pursue. Billy Mitchell knew quite well what he wanted to do with strategic air power. When people in corporate boardrooms speak of social media with great respect, they know exactly what goal they want to harness social media to achieve. It's not possible to develop a social media strategy without a clear idea of what strategic goals are to be pursued. The article does not provide this, and the ideas for how social media are to be used are correspondingly vague.
More important, the references to "ability to control the message" and the comment that "social media exists (sic) to quickly and personally convey a message to the masses" indicate a serious lack of understanding of what social media are and how they work. Social media do not allow anyone, anywhere to control any message. They allow many different people and organizations to participate in the message, a very different thing. Social media do NOT exist to "convey a message to the masses", a phrase that suggests a top-down flow. They exist to let the masses convey messages to each other on a peer-to-peer basis. Again, a very different thing.
Dictators do not "live in fear of social media". This is a commonly repeated inaccuracy that seems to grant agency to social media in themselves, a serious mistake. The power lies not with the media, but with the people using them. The media are a tool, one among many. If social media are available, people will use them; if they are not available, people will use other tools. Any idea that revolutions assisted by social media would not have happened if there were no social media available would be quite insupportable. Dictators don't live in fear of social media, they live in fear of their people. They control social media to try to prevent the people from communicating or organizing.
Social media newbies often rank success by the number of "likes" or "followers" an entity has. In reality getting "likes" and "followers" is a fraction of what needs to be done. Many of those "likes" and "followers" like or follow dozens or hundreds of pages. All that gets you is a fleeting millisecond of their attention, if that. Most users have, often unconsciously, a hierarchy of trust and credibility among pages they like or follow. Moving up in that hierarchy is at least as important as adding "likes". 100k likes that barely notice your posts conveys less information than 10k that actively seek out your posts and are likely to share them to their own networks.
The impact of "going viral" is often overrated. Most "viral" trends fade from sight in days and have little lasting impact. Did anyone get Kony in 2012? Does anyone remember, or did they all move on to Gangnam Style?
Certainly there are things that can be done with social media. Careful monitoring of social media can yield valuable intelligence and insight into emerging trends in politically unsettled places. Social media can help to predict political upheavals and anticipate their direction. Whether or not they could be used to provoke or direct any such upheaval is a lot more doubtful; I'm inclined to think that wouldn't be a very good idea.
It's often mentioned that the negative and the ugly messages are easiest to spread. That can make it hard to spread the positive, but that trend can also be useful. Social media helped bring the shooting of Malala Yousafzai to the world and keep it in the world's eye. One wouldn't want to be obvious or ham-handed about it, but making sure the atrocities and the violent misogyny of those we oppose get the opportunity to circulate is not at all a bad thing.
Any institution that wants to use social media to spread its message has to come up against a basic problem. Institutionally managed pages are controllable; you can prevent major foot-in-mouth incidents. Institutionally managed pages are also typically pretty boring and get limited attention. Giving individuals free rein gives a more appealing message... until one of those individuals says the wrong thing and makes a mess. Midlevel commanders who block or restrict social media use have an obvious reason: they're concerned that somebody will say the wrong thing and bring a bunch of heat on them. It's a two-edged sword: saying the right thing can help you, the wrong thing can blow up in your face big time.
I ramble and will stop, but will first come back to this point: any discussion of a "social media strategy" has to begin by delineating the specific strategic goals to be pursued, and follow by clearly demonstrating how social media can be used to pursue those goals. Returning to the Billy Mitchell analogy, recall that Billy Mitchell knew exactly what he wanted to do with air power. Do we know exactly what we want to accomplish through the use of social media? If we don't, how can we develop an effective strategy?
Thank you for a comprehensive, yet open-ended, view of the challenges and opportunities of social media for the U.S. military (particularly for those soldiers and sailors deployed). I have skimmed the comments, which are thoughtful, too. The telling of "our" story is urgent. Ironically, it is not new and was a problem of the pre-digital age, as illustrated by "The Ugly American".
What I find, as a technophobe, so intriguing about your thinking, is that the proper use of social media can leverage the skills of just those marketing types, who are in the National Guard or the Reserves, when they are activated. Another hurdle that a wise use of social media can clear is the problem of the scarcity of professionals on the civilian capacity-building and community development side.
Few are my colleagues with the heart and soul to reach out to communities, willing to take the same risks you do, by treating host-country nationals more as compatriots and beneficiaries rather than targeted recipients. Nevertheless, the 'civilian' surges have proven that it is better to have too few dedicated civilians than a lot of mediocre ones demoralizing those few who really care.
Your article suggests a multiplier effect that can bridge that core of competent and compassionate people with the large pool of beneficiaries waiting for the privilege of collaborating with our citizen soldiers and the few civilian experts to address their emergencies or take that critical first stride toward freedom.
Most exciting for me is the possibility of open innovation, a model that worked well in Silicon Valley -- also suggested in a digitally compatible community development strategy by E.M. Burlingame and his refreshingly creative 'Venture Capital Green Beret'. Silicon Valley has also had to deal with protecting truly classified information (i.e., trade secrets).
Imagine the mobility and the responsiveness of our brothers and sisters in uniform with a carefully circumscribed open innovation -- between individuals, units, services and, yes, with civilians. The parameters of discussion would be be limited to a page of simple sentences, as you suggest, Captain Gilmore.
There are three challenges identified in the comments. The concern over one-way communication is one of timing, at least to me. Once the fan base builds up, people will interact because that is what people do; more ideas will emerge making tactical thinking even more flexible. A second reservation over informational security is more perplexing to me.
Not because of the possibilities of inattention to what is classified or of outright treason but because, in reality, far too much information is classified (more to protect careers or promote private agendas than to safeguard the national interest). Your ideas, if implemented, would go further toward reforming that system than any I can think of.
The last critique of the break-down of cohesion reflects a fear that is apparent than real. For a LT Zuckerberg to prevail would entail his jumping many levels of the chain of command to realize his innovation. There are apt to be people threatened by such an upstart. I know -- I could easily be one of them.
This task-or-skill-specific leap would not require a promotion of six ranks but simply support by people in those said ranks. After all, senior officers often bring the benefit of wisdom born of perspective and bred in field experience. Call the joint work of the two a reliable revolution in military thinking.
As a life-long civilian who has worked side-by-side with military counterparts but who will never really understand your culture, I can say that the military's greatest strength is its chain of command which focuses on aligned implementation after often open and often contentious debate. Social media could be applied not only to be consistent with that strength but to enhance it.
Your proposals are wise in their limited scope, Captain Gilmore. They can be implemented and then give rise to a second generation of objectives as the deployment of social media, itself ever evolving, by the military plays out in a dynamic manner congruent with the culture. Given the rate of change we live in, we are better advised to let those second generation goals emerge from the first generation of collaboration.
I apologize for this lengthy response. Captain Gilmore, your piece has so much to it. As a curmudgeon slightly before my time, I can only say that the title of this response by me (which you will not see) would be a perfect 'BLUF' for all my bloviation: "Brilliant, 'nuff said."
The USMCs 2.5 million Facebook friends tells a little, but in itself it doesn't mean much. Some questions that would tell more: on the average, how many of those 2.5 million will share a typical posting on the USMC page? What types of post are most often shared? Who does the sharing: is it consistently the same people, or a variety? What type of networks is the information shared into? To "choirs" (as in "preaching to the choir", meaning groups already disposed to accept your message) or into networks where it might challenge existing assumptions? Not that preaching to the choir is inherently wrong, but you don't want to confuse it with changing people's minds.
Have to remember that effective use of social media is not about getting a message to your friends, likes, or followers. It's about getting them to pass the message on to their own networks. It's not about building a big follower base and getting complacent, it's about constantly assessing the messaging to see what's getting passed on and in what patterns it's getting passed on.
If you want to make "viral" patterns work for you, think like an epidemiologist. Understand where your message spreads and how, know where it goes and where it doesn't go, and where you want it to go.
A few thoughts on the article:
- The author should be careful about generalizing about the entire DOD. The Marine Corps has 2.5 Million friends on Facebook. More than 70% of those are civilians, not active duty personnel. This constitutes an audience 10 times our size. If only 10% attend to our ideas, that’s an audience of 250K. Not shabby.
- The purpose of social media is NOT as the author asserts, “to convey messages”; rather it is to engage in dialogue. Social media is dialogic, not monologic. If you simply just want to broadcast, use your organizational webpage. If you want to listen too, and want feedback from your audience, then social media is a place for you.
- Today’s audience wants to be part of the conversation. They want dialogue, not to be talked at, messaged, etc… How influenced are you by commercials (monologic)? How persuaded are you by billboards (monologic)? What’s the potential for your barber of 10 years to persuade you to another line of thinking (dialogic)? My money is on the latter, and the body of research in the study of persuasion supports this – with statistical significance. Stand by to see interactive TV. It’s coming soon.
- Professionals begin the communication process by asking the question, “What is our goal?” not with “what do we want to say?” Far too often, DOD communications begin with the latter – and then the sender is perplexed why the communication tactic didn’t have the intended effect. It’s always better to do the magic trick first, hook the audience, and then tell them how it’s done – then you have them! If you begin with what you want to say about your organization, good luck – because the audience does not care about what you want to say about you. They care about how you solve their problems, gratify their needs, entertain them, etc…. Sound communication begins with a clear understanding of the needs/desires/gratifications of the audience.
- If your website doesn’t appear in the top 5 Google search listings, you need some serious search engine optimization (SEO). There’s books out there on how to do it.
- As far as “leveraging” good news stories (i.e. school openings, humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, etc…): given the fact that humans are hardwired to pay more attention to the things that can harm them than the things that are “nice” or “good”, it only makes sense that “news that bleeds, leads” in the headlines. Doubt me? Take a look at I-95 during your commute. You’ll see traffic backed up for miles in both lanes while people rubber-neck at an accident while they will speed by at 90 mph and blow the doors off of a good Samaritan helping a fellow motorist change a tire. If reporters aren’t covering school openings, it’s not because the PAO didn’t “leverage” the good news (whatever that means), it’s because the reporter can’t freely travel from Kabul to the location without being kidnapped, blown up, etc…or that someone just bombed a police station and killed 15 people and they are covering that. News is a competitive business. If your story doesn’t contain as many elements as possible of immediacy, proximity, consequence, conflict, oddity, sex, emotion, prominence, suspense, or progress, good luck. Marines do what they are supposed to? No news. Dog bites man? No news. Man bites dog = news story.
- It’s far easier to go where the audience is than to attempt to create one.
- Lastly, I’ll agree that DOD’s internal news efforts are archaic. Last I checked, we spend about $48M on Stars and Stripes per year alone. Yes, yes I know they are semi-autonomous and not under DOD editorial control, but it begs the question: In the era of declining defense budgets, and the ubiquity of respected mainstream (and blog) news outlets, why does DOD maintain such an anachronism? Because the deployed servicemembers need news? Please. I’ve yet to see S&S fly off the stands – even in deployed locales. (I retrieve them off of the unread stacks in the Pentagon for package stuffing, wood stove starting, etc…) They generally stack up in the FOBs (where most have internet connectivity) and rarely, if ever reach the far flung outposts where internet is scarce. The fact is, that if you want to reach the troops, you have to put the word between their thumbs on their smartphones or in a YouTube video. Soy ink will never stain 18 y/o fingers – not in a million years.
Take good care, Joe
Join the DoD online collaborators at https://www.milsuite.mil.
Moderator's Note: this website is not open to the public; which illustrates one problem and the site is described openly on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MilSuite
I absolutely agree with your points about the lack of credibility in command messages. There is pressure on leaders to "tell the Army's story" and to push IO themes and messages on a target audiences. For a lot of units this becomes part of the campaign plan and targeting process. As you and Jeff have stated, the result is seen as propaganda but that's just part of the issue. This deliberate attempt to tell "our side" of the story is pretty transparent, especially since our leaders are professional soldiers/warfighters/leaders/etc, not professional marketing directors or public relations gurus. As a result, too often our command messaging products are of a lower caliber, less refined, less polished, and less appealing. People are willing to consume biased media (see Fox News, MSNBC, Drudge Report) as long as it looks cool and the Pentagon Channel, DVIDS videos from down range, and stories in the local post newspaper are quite uncool.
This problem is perpetuated as units continue to use the same ineffective tools. We'll have a Facebook page because that's what every unit does. We'll publish a BDE newsletter because 1st and 2nd BDEs publish one. We'll have PAO do a video of us training Afghan police because that's what A Co did when PAO visited them last week. I think the problem needs to be reframed. What are we actually trying to accomplish with SM? What are the resources associated with achieving those goals? Is the juice worth the squeeze? I applaud Jeff for furthering the conversation because the military's current approach to social media does seem disjointed, disoriented, and ineffective.
Outstanding article that gives us all much to think about on the why and the how to better integrate social media into our overall strategic approach. I do think your four recommendations, while a good start, are inadequate from my perspective to gain more value from SM. The following are some initial thoughts on your view, not intended as criticism, just my pondering. I definitely look forward to your response if you choose to do so.
Admittedly I come from the “Digital Immigrants” tribe, so we may have to work on our cross cultural communication process, and I’m looking at this primarily from a SOF perspective. First I have to admit I was a bit perplexed on why you used the AMC Facebook site as an example of how ineffectively the military communicated with the masses simply because I doubt that the majority of people would have much interest in AMC. I realize AMC operations are more exciting and interesting than watching paint dry, and that their operations are absolutely essential to the military just as power plants are essential infrastructure for our society as a whole, but hordes of people won't flock their Facebook site(s) unless the prices go up or they lose service. As we all know there is lots of important work being done the world that doesn't get much recognizition beyond small communities of interest, and SM won't change that. Of course then I saw your short bio at the end of the article and it all made sense :-). This actually leads to a point that I hopefully hit below.
I think your recommendation to develop a better SM strategy and educate our force on it is imperative and that the force must leverage the talents of our digital natives to maximize the value of SM. Where I may differ is with some your comments about the importance of getting the command's message out and the importance of service members telling their stories because they may ultimately be of little value. Blasphemy I know, but I believe most of the audience is at least as skeptical as I am of any command message and will simply regard it as propaganda whether you put it out via social media or write it on a piece of paper and tack it on a door like Martin Luther. The source must still be considered credible and it will be difficult for the military to ever be considered a credible source, at least when we're talking about senior level officers. Not fair, but we have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. A rogue officer who gets out of the service and complains about senior officers and spouts conspiracy theories will have a much bigger following on SM than an authorized command message. Key to making the message successful is making it much less stiff (official) than most Public Affairs types are capable of.
Furthermore the value of SM is the interactive communication, so it just isn't posting a message, but effectively engaging the hopefully growing community of interest. How do we hold their interest? How do we create our own social movement that supports our objectives? Should our focus be on command messages and service members stories (which don't necessarily require SM to commuicate effectively), or on co-opting the audience to share our goals? That would be a very different approach than simply putting out the same ole message/propaganda in a different medium (SM). Instead the focus would be on shifting attitudes through active engagement. Not sure posting hundreds of stories of troops building schools and clinics would influence anyone beyond the mothers back home unless it came from a credible source with a message that only resonates but goes viral and generates active and passive support for our efforts. I can't help but wonder if the Taliban think we're out maneuvering them in SM, while we tend to think they're out maneuvering us. Not sure how you assess that, but we need to. This is the game changing domain and you're right we're still not in it effectively.
Your collaboration section was excellent, but it has been my experience that service members from both tribes don't use SM to max effect to solve problems, plan, etc. Suspect there are some sociopsychological factors that influence that, but frequently notice the discussion sections on our Wikipages are blank, or perhaps have one lonely post on it waiting on a SM response, much like my old adds on match.com :-). Now that we're moving into multipedia collaboration we may see some improvement.
The impact of social media is clearly shown in this example found by Stan in his winter hibernation: How many people know what it's like to go from 2,000 Twitter followers to 100,000 in five hours? See: http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/sports&id=8947389
The AMC has a long way to go!
Excellent article Jeff. As a BN CDR in 2003 Iraq, I also found myself responding to family and congressional problems from back home caused by young soldiers with instant or almost instant access to CONUS. These soldiers, instead of b?tching to their Sergeants as in days of yore, are now able to take their complaints home to people with little military knowledge or situational perspective. This reduced unit cohesion and presented a false picture to our strategic reserve...the American people. We responded by teaching our soldiers and being extremely sensitive to the information operations value of the family support groups. In the long run, I think that our young soldiers, especially our reserve soldiers who live in largely non-military environments, played a huge role in supporting the war during a period of largely negative national media coverage. Facebook posts, email etc from family members serving overseas often painted a completely different picture. BTW, I now have as FB friends, Iraqi and Afghan colleagues.
To be fair to AMC, AMC's Facebook page has grown since I submitted this essay at the end of November. They now stand at 1,784 fans as of today. While still a small number overall, it represents a significant percentage growth since they've rebranded their page in late 2012.